New school nutrition director has eye on lunch debt

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WESTBROOK — Last school year ended with an anonymous donor coming forward to wipe out more than $10,000 in students’ school lunch debt. This school year will begin with a new nutrition director who will work to tackle the debt problem.

Last week, Mary Emerson was hired to replace Barbara Nichols as Westbrook School Department’s Director of School Nutrition. Nichols stepped down at the end of the school year after seven years, citing a desire to spend more time with her family.

Emerson does not yet have a start date in Westbrook, but hopes to be on board towards the beginning of the school year.

For the last 12 years, Emerson has worked as the nutrition director of SAD 55 (Saccopee Valley) and six years ago also took over the school nutrition program at SAD 72 (Fryeburg). She previously worked as a registered dietitian and has a background in health care nutrition as well.

Emerson is a member of the Maine School Nutrition Association’s communication committee and is the editor of Maine Light, the organization’s official publication.

“We are really lucky to have her,” Superintendent Peter Lancia said after the July 25 school committee meeting in which Emerson was officially hired. “She has a terrific reputation in the school nutrition business.”

Lancia said there were a half dozen applicants for the position and Emerson was chosen from “a really good pool” of candidates.

“It is a specialized occupation, so having only five to seven applicants is not unusual,” he said.

Emerson said she became interested in the Westbrook position through relationships she has made with the previous two school nutrition directors in Westbrook, Nichols and Jeanne Reilly, who spent 14 years in Westbrook from 1997 to 2011 and now works as the director of school nutrition for RSU 14 (Windham/Raymond). Emerson worked with Reilly in the nutrition department of a health care organization in Bangor in the late 1980s and has worked with Nichols on joint food purchasing.

This is the second time Emerson has applied for the Westbrook school nutrition director position, having lost out to Nichols when she was hired by then Superintendent Marc Gousse.

With the job, Emerson inherits the issue of trying to find a way to make sure the nutrition department doesn’t find itself in the same position as last school year in which students in the system owed more than $10,000 in unpaid school lunches. An anonymous donation took care of most of that debt. 

“I don’t think you can find a school nutrition department that doesn’t have a problem (with debt).  It is a national issue,” Emerson said.

How districts deal with it, she said, differs based on school policy.

In RSU 72, for example, students are sent an application to participate in the free and reduced lunch program, she said, and families are required to send it back or send a note they do not want to apply for the program.

Emerson said she would like to work with other Westbrook school staff to address the issue of school nutrition and make sure students are getting the nutrition they need.

“It is hard for one person to handle on their own. That’s why it is important to build relationships with social workers, but there is sometimes a confidentiality issue, so it can be a fine line,” she said.

With Emerson on board, Lancia said the school department will be looking at the school nutrition program not just as a school endeavor, but as a community issue. It will try to work with the city to deal with food insecurity in an effort to make sure all families who qualify sign up for the free or reduced meal program.

“That is something Mary is passionate about – looking holistically at food insecurity. I think she is the perfect person to do that,” Lancia said.

Michael Kelley can be reached at 781-3661 x 125 or mkelley@keepmecurrent.com or on Twitter @mkelleynews.

Mary Emerson

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